You’ve seen technology gurus tape over their webcams, but a kill switch is a more elegant solution to the very real privacy threat posed by devices like cameras and microphones. The question is: do you need one for your privacy?
Sometimes Off Isn’t Really Off
Our smartphones, laptops, smart speakers, and other similar modern devices all offer settings that tell us no one is watching or listening. However, how do you know the software-based “off switch” actually does anything at all?
By now, there are many notorious stories of hackers accessing webcams and recording people sitting at their computers. The person in question is none the wiser, even when modern cameras have a light indicating that the camera is filming.
That’s because hackers are also discovering exploits to work around the recording light. It’s one of the reasons that webcam covers have become a popular product, though that does nothing to stop sound recording.
Ultimately, you have no way of knowing that a simple software toggle actually does what it says. The only way to ensure that a device or a component of a device is really inoperable is to cut off its physical connection to power and data. That’s where a physical kill switch comes into play.
You’ve Used a Kill Switch Before
While you may not have heard of them referring to using the term “kill switch”, you’ve almost certainly used one before. For example, laptops with physical switches for WiFi turn the WiFi hardware off, making it impossible to use WiFi. Of course, it’s also possible to make a physical switch that only triggers a software setting, making it no more reliable than a software toggle.
If you’re using an external USB webcam or microphone with your computer, you have access to the most basic type of kill switch: simply unplugging your hardware.
Unfortunately, when it comes to integrated webcams and microphones you don’t have this option unless the laptop manufacturer specifically builds the switch into its hardware.
Physical Kill Switches in the Wild
Purism is a company founded on the idea of having strict privacy and security features built into its computers. The Librem 14 is a prime example of this philosophy, and its hardware, firmware, and operating system have been designed with a significantly higher level of paranoia than typical computers.
The Librem 14 Linux laptop features multiple physical kill switches, which the company claims absolutely disables the related hardware. There are switches for the webcam and microphone as well as WiFi and Bluetooth. When it comes to the Librem 14 in particular, there are so many additional privacy features that the kill switches really are the least of it, but there are examples of such kill switches in regular laptops that don’t go to such extremes.
All the way back in 2018, HP was already shipping laptops with physical kill switches for the webcam. Their Specter laptops included these switches, so hopefully the chances of a hacked webcam recording you when you don’t want it to are virtually zero.
Kill switches may not always take the form of a traditional sliding switch on the side of a laptop. It’s entirely possible to integrate the kill switch with a physical, built-in camera shutter.
Another interesting take on the concept is Dell’s SafeShutter technology. There’s a mechanical shutter that slides over the camera when it’s not in use, and this can be manually operated by using the F9 and F4 keys. The difference here is that they’ve created a dedicated hardware circuit that operates outside of the operating system. This isn’t as foolproof as a physical kill switch, but it’s a promising middle ground.
Do You Need a Physical Kill Switch?
Should you specifically look for a laptop with a physical kill switch? Should you try to rig a kill switch solution for your desktop system? It’s difficult to answer these questions universally since the needs of every user are unique. In general, the security features that all computers come with are more than enough to protect you against random hacks and attacks if you follow a few simple rules:
- Make sure your operating system is always up to date.
- Use a trusted antivirus and antimalware package to intercept malicious software.
- Practice good security habits, such as not running software you can’t verify as trustworthy.
If you’re someone who works with information that’s of a highly sensitive nature. The type of stuff that would make you the target of hackers for espionage reasons. If that’s you, then you’re better off buying specialized secured computer hardware to limit the odds of someone spying on you or stealing your data.